North Korea remains one of the most isolated and repressive countries in the world.
Each year, though fleeing the country is a capital offense, a brave few attempt an escape to freedom using a secret network of safe houses and routes from North Korea to Southeast Asia.
In her book Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad, writer Melanie Kirkpatrick tells the harrowing stories of North Korean defectors who attempt to escape from a place she calls "hell on Earth."
"Sometimes I go to sleep at night thinking about the horrible stories I'd heard about life in North Korea," Kirkpatrick tells NPR's Neal Conan. "But at the same time, it's very positive to think that after six decades of totalitarian repression, there are people who are still longing for freedom and have the courage to go after it."
For those lucky enough to cross the border successfully, the danger doesn't end there. Kirkpatrick says North Koreans stand out in China because they don't speak the language and are often smaller because of decades of malnourishment.
"The first thing the North Korean will do before he actually begins his journey is put on Chinese clothes. His helpers will cut his hair to make him look more Chinese," Kirkpatrick says.
"In the case of women, the rescuers teach the North Korean women how to apply makeup," she says. "They often keep them in a safe house for a couple months so that they can gain weight and ... blend in better when they actually begin their journey across the country."
Sold As A Bride
Kirkpatrick tells the story of a woman she calls Hanna, who was kidnapped from North Korea and taken to China, where she was sold to a Chinese man as a bride.
"After 30 years of a one-child policy and Chinese couples' preference for boys, there is a severe shortage of young women in China today," Kirkpatrick says. "And the one thing many young men want most in life is a bride. So they place an order for one from North Korea."
Hanna escaped with the help of a South Korean pastor who helped her get to Southeast Asia, and she eventually made it to New Jersey.
The Helpers Along The Way
Asia's underground railroad is similar to the system that helped African-American slaves escape to the North in the 19th century. It is operated mostly by Christians; some brokers and human traffickers are involved for the money. Many of the people involved have Korean heritage.
Kirkpatrick's book tells the story of Adrian Hong, a Yale student who founded an organization in the mid-2000s called Liberty in North Korea to help people along the underground railroad.
During one operation, Hong and six North Koreans were arrested in China. He was able to get diplomatic assistance and only spent a week or two in jail. The North Koreans had a more difficult time, but after the U.S. applied pressure, the Chinese government let them go to South Korea.
Between 24,000 and 25,000 people have escaped North Korea, but Kirkpatrick says there are still 25 million in the country. Those who escape serve as conduits of information and have educated the outside world about the reality of life in North Korea.
"The North Koreans who escape have found ways to get information back into North Korea," Kirkpatrick adds. "And in doing so, they're helping to open up that country, which has been sealed for six decades."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
As we near the anniversary of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, it looks as if his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, plans to mark the occasion with a flourish. Preparations are underway for another attempt to launch a satellite into orbit atop a rocket that, to the rest of the world, looks like a long-range missile that could someday carry a nuclear weapon. But while we focus on North Korea's weapons and the often erratic behavior of its leaders, we too often overlook its people. Except for a privileged few, they live under dire conditions.
Some manage to escape into China. Some of those eventually make their way to South Korea, even to the United States. In a new book, Melanie Kirkpatrick tells their story. It's called "Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad." The author joins us here in Studio 3A. Good to have you with us today.
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: I'm glad to be here.
CONAN: And you interviewed a woman you call Hanna(ph) in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Tells us her story. How did she get to New Jersey?
KIRKPATRICK: Hanna was a bride. That is, she was a North Korean woman who was kidnapped in North Korea and taken to China where she was sold as a bride to a Chinese man. This is a big market in China. After 30 years of a one-child policy and Chinese couples' preference for boys, there is a severe shortage of young women in China today. And the one thing many young men want most in life is a bride. So they place an order for one from North Korea.
CONAN: For how much?
KIRKPATRICK: It depends. Every North Korean bride I interviewed told me that she remembered the price for which she was sold, but roughly, it's $1,500 or $2,000.
CONAN: And once in this relationship, if you can call it that, how did she escape?
KIRKPATRICK: She escaped on the underground railroad with the help of a South Korean pastor who escorted her across the country of China to Southeast Asia, and eventually she came to America. But there's one important thing I need to mention here, which is that China is hostile territory for North Koreans. In China - that China has a policy of tracking down, arresting and repatriating North Koreans.
So a North Korean who is trapped in China, such as Hanna was, doesn't have the option of going to the security officials, to a policeman and asking for help because if she does, she'll be sent back to North Korea, and that's a worse fate than living with an abusive Chinese husband.
CONAN: And escaping from what you describe a hell on earth, North Korea, some - yes, trafficked women, many of those, but some people do make it out across the rivers that border China.
KIRKPATRICK: Yes. There are tens of thousands of North Koreans who are hiding in China today. At the peak in the late '90s, early 2000s, there were more than half a million. But in - about 25,000 have made it safely to South Korea where they're living today. And about 140, 150 have come to the United States, and there have been several hundred who've gone to Europe.
CONAN: And this underground railroad, obviously the phrase we associate with escaped slaves from the South before the Civil War, but the analogy, you say, is apt.
KIRKPATRICK: The analogy is very similar. It's a secret network of safe houses and routes - secret routes across the country. It's staffed. It's operated mostly by Christians, similar to the original Underground Railroad, though there are also people who are in it for the money who are involved - brokers and human traffickers. And many of the people who help the North Koreans in China are ethnically Korean. That is they're Korean-Chinese or they're South Korean or there are - they are Americans who are of Korean heritage. I interviewed a number of the rescuers, and their stories are incredibly inspiring. Especially in this Christmas season, you think about these are people who are living their faith by going to a hostile country to help, and helping people that nobody else in the world is prepared to help.
CONAN: And it's interesting. You tell the story of one of them: Adrian Hong.
KIRKPATRICK: Adrian was a student at Yale University when he decided, in the mid-2000s, to found an organization called Liberty in North Korea to help North Koreans escape on the underground railroad out of China to Southeast Asia, and then on to the U.S. or to South Korea.
And on one of the operations, things went badly awry, and Adrian himself was arrested. It was just a couple of days before Christmas in, I think, 2006. He was thrown in jail in China, and so were the six North Koreans he was trying to help. Eventually, Adrian, with diplomatic assistance, was able to get out of China. And he was only in jail for a week or two. The North Koreans were a different story, however, and United States' government put pressure on China, and eventually China let them go to South Korea.
CONAN: The underground railroad, though, from the border of North Korea, the Yalu River, to Southeast Asia, that's an enormous distance.
KIRKPATRICK: It's a huge distance. And imagine, the North Korea - it's more 2,000 miles. And North Koreans stand out in China. First of all, they don't speak Chinese. Second of all, they're small, because of decades of malnourishment.
And they - the first thing the North Korean will do before he actually begins his journey is put on Chinese clothes. His helpers will get - you know, cut his hair to make him look more Chinese. In the case of women, the rescuers teach the North Korean women how to apply makeup. They often keep them in a safe house for a couple months so that they can gain weight and look, you know, again, blend in better when they actually begin their journey across the country.
CONAN: And it's - to blend in better, they have to - as you say, there are numbers of Koreans, ethnic Koreans who are in China perfectly legally, and they form part of this network. Yet they are also part of the problem, aren't they?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, they - if they're discovered having helped North Koreans, they, too, can be sent to jail. I know of a north - of a Chinese women who was ethnically Korean who went to jail for two years for the crime of buying a train ticket for a North Korean.
CONAN: So this - as distressing as the situation is in North Korea - and your description of this and others, you're not alone, of the prison systems there, and there are two separate systems: one for penal colonies, which are basically labor for, I guess, common criminals, if you will, and the others, of their political system, even worse. And then there are the jails and the astonishing number of Koreans who've come out of North Korea who say they have been, well, picked up by the police at some point and brutalized in these jails. But all that, and then the neighbor, China, which aids and abets.
KIRKPATRICK: Yes, yes. China is the facilitator here. It is in - it is operating a contravention of its commitments under their national treaties it signed regarding refugees. It's also immoral. And I don't think China wants to be associated with the brutality of the North Korean regime.
CONAN: Well, no, they don't. But they are, nevertheless, because as you say, if someone is out of - well, all right, if you are picked up in China...
CONAN: ...and sent back to North Korea, what happens then?
KIRKPATRICK: They are automatically sent to jail. And if the dossier that China sends back with every refugee shows that they've been attempting to escape to North - to South Korea, pardon me - or if they've met with Christians in China or with South Koreans in China or, perish the thought, with Americans in China, their punishment will be much more severe. And there have been instances of North Koreans who've been executed for those so-called crimes.
CONAN: The woman you spoke in Elizabeth, New Jersey - and again, you used her Christian name, the one she was given by the missionaries who helped her escape, because if she used her real name, she still has family in North Korea.
KIRKPATRICK: Yes. North Korea believes in a system of three generations of punishment. So a person who commits a political crime, like leaving the country without permission, can expect to be sent to jail. But he can also - he knows that his parents and his children will go along with him.
CONAN: We'll let you catch your breath in just a moment. You have that green button there. You can cut off your microphone and cough in peace for just a moment.
If - do you worry at all? And this was the concern when people started to arrive in South Korea from the North through this underground railroad. The depiction of the North they gave was so harsh and so brutal and so unrelenting that they were trying to curry favor with their South Korean hosts that they were trying to get entry by criticizing the communist neighbor to the North.
KIRKPATRICK: If that was the concern initially, I've never heard it expressed in recent years. There are now so many people who have gotten out, and their stories have been corroborated by, you know, so many of these different people who've escaped that it's, you know, North Korea is as bad as they say, and perhaps even worse.
But, you know, I would like to say that the stories are also inspiring. You hear these terrible things, and sometimes I go to sleep at night thinking about the horrible stories I'd heard about life in North Korea. But at the same time, it's very positive to think that after six decades of totalitarian repression, there are people who are still longing for freedom and have the courage to go after it.
CONAN: Yet it raises the question of the many more who are still inside that hell on Earth.
KIRKPATRICK: Indeed. And the 24,000, 25,000 who have gotten out are a drop in the bucket when you consider there are still 25 million people enslaved in North Korea. However, the North Koreans who escape are small in number, but they have provided a huge service, two ways. One is that they've educated all of us about the reality of life in North Korea. Nobody can say today that we didn't know. We now know about the gulag. We know about the way the government uses food as a political tool. We know all of this.
But the information trail that I just described works in the opposite way, too. The North Koreans who escape have found ways to get information back into North Korea. And in doing so, they're helping to open up that country which has been sealed for six decades.
CONAN: And that raises the question - North Korea: Should it be cut off, punished, sanctioned or opened up, so that they can see that there is a world out there that's so different from the one they live in?
KIRKPATRICK: One of the things the United States could do better is get - it could have a strategy to get information into North Korea. We already support refugee-run radio stations that broadcast news into North Korea. We also support Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, which have excellent programs in getting news to North Korea. But there's more we could do, especially involving modern technology such as flash drives and, you know, cell phones.
CONAN: Melanie Kirkpatrick, thank you very much.
KIRKPATRICK: Thank you.
CONAN: Melanie Kirkpatrick is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, author of "Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad." You can read about three essential functions North Korean exiles serve in opening up their country in an excerpt from the book at our website. Go to npr.org/talk. And Melanie Kirkpatrick joined us here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.